Readers of these Chronicles will recognize the term “victimary,” which I have been using at least since 1996 (in Chronicle 38), and which has been the subject of the last two Chronicles. But they will also realize that the use of this term, as verified by Google, is entirely restricted to GA publications. One would not expect the partisans of victimary policies to label them thus; they are fighting for justice, against retrograde prejudice, racism, sexism… But on the conservative side, hostility to victimary politics is expressed as a defense of “freedom,” of what the founders called “the pursuit of happiness,” but never as an attack on the victimary itself. That is not to say that astute thinkers of the Burkean stripe, such as Charles Krauthammer or Victor Davis Hanson, do not denounce the moral pretension of victimary attitudes and their apotropaic use to defend “progressives”’ own wealth and privilege. But the idea that the whole politics of the Left is centered on one simple idea, and that the more doctrinal the politician—and Barack Obama is doctrinal indeed—the more exclusively this idea is used to justify his or her policies, is not one that can be acquired from reading Commentary, or the Weekly Standard, or the National Review, or the Wall Street Journal.
To use another politically unviable term, denouncing the victimary politics of the Left would be tantamount to asserting the rights of firstness. No doubt one can talk about firstness in other terms (“freedom”, “success”) so long as one doesn’t emphasize the invidious nature of the comparison it implies. In contrast, the victimary, not just the word but the concept itself, is pretty close to taboo. “Blaming the victim” is the greatest of postmodern sins—and once the ethnic or gender affiliation of one of the parties in a dispute defines him/her a priori as the “victim,” no such blame can possibly be deserved. As Ms Sotomayor’s impassioned response to the recent decision to permit Michigan to do away with race-based affirmative action programs suggests, along with similar vehement reactions to attempts to require ID for voting, etc., there is in the United States and no doubt in other industrial countries an important constituency for victimocracy that denounces the denial of special privileges to victimary groups as a form of racism. The very essence of victimary thinking is that there is no “objective” measure of competence that does not implicitly favor the hegemonic group, no scene on which all participants stand on an equal footing—a denial, rooted (in the US) in African slavery, and “ontologized” by the Holocaust.
The advantage of the term “victimary” lies precisely in what makes it unacceptable to the political class: it emphasizes an unpleasant truth and obliges the hearer to reckon with it—that “progressives” view individuals primarily as members of ascriptive groups. It moves the debate away from “trying not to offend anyone” by pointing out that, if the central value is not offending “anyone,” then only “victims” and their spokesmen will have the floor and will offend the “majority” at their leisure. Edward Said’s “Orientalism” offered the classical paradigm: the “hegemon” learns that there is no way to speak about the “other” without assigning him to a “subaltern” role, and thereby committing at the very least a “micro-aggression”—a phenomenon, if not a term, that is at the center of Said‘s argument, whose principal targets are not crude racial myths but serious attempts by conscientious Western scholars to understand some aspect of “the Orient.” But in order to affirm the rights of firstness, which are not those of oppression and condescension, but which merely make it unnecessary for everyone to pretend that no one (except members of victimary groups) is better at anything than anyone else, we have to be willing, not deliberately to offend others, but to take the chance that in telling the truth, someone might be offended.
A nicer way to put this is, “lighten up.” Perhaps it is easy for Jews to say such things in a country that has never had pogroms and where the old university quotas and most similar restrictions are long gone. But all members of minorities have heard slurs they have learned to ignore—or had done so before micro-aggression became a crime. The other day I watched Old San Francisco (1927), a fine old pre-talkie, made just before The Jazz Singer began speaking on film, but using the same Vitaphone sound system, better suited to sound effects than speech because it required synchronizing a record with the film. In it, Warner Oland, the Swedish “Oriental” actor better known as the sinister Dr. Fu Manchu (and the lovable but somewhat “racist” Charlie Chan), plays a nasty half-breed who exploits the Chinese inhabitants of SF. The program notes (here at UCLA, the use of whose initials to express bemused admiration for its high percentage of East Asian students would be an unpardonable micro-aggression today) castigated the prejudice shown toward the Chinese, particularly Oland’s character who was able to “pass,” much as Jews don’t always have those useful hooked noses. The only redeeming feature was that the Hispanic immigrants whom Oland sought to despoil were treated with respect. Well, yes, but these were aristocratic Spanish colonials, not “brown” native Mexicans, “Hispanics” having not yet come to be seen as a “race.” (The Hispanic heroine was played by beautiful Dolores Costello, “the queen of the silent screen,” whom the IMDB sadly remembers only as Drew Barrymore’s grandmother.)
Must we work so hard to demonstrate that we don’t share the ethnic prejudices of the past? Our task should be neither to condone nor to condemn but to situate these prejudices. In fact, aside from Oland, the “real” Chinese, all in “ethnic” garb, were treated nonetheless with dignity, and after the historic 1906 earthquake that climaxes the film, a Chinese dwarf (Oland’s brother, whom he kept in a cage!) has the moxie to lead the Irish hero through the wreckage to rescue Miss Costello-Vasquez. We should learn to distinguish between truly dehumanizing portrayals (e.g., The Birth of a Nation) and the generally benign stereotyping of most other films—which contrasts with the really nasty stereotypes Hollywood uses to portray its bugbears on the Right.
I don’t expect that using the word “victimary” in a web series read by a small number of persons will have any effect on the national vocabulary, but I can at least vote with my keyboard against demonizing micro-aggression and in favor of desensitizing us to expressions of victimary difference. Members of different ethnic groups, as well as the two+ genders, generally get along pretty well, absorbing their quota of micro-aggressions without losing their sense of humor. Creating victims is bad, but telling potential victims to report every ruffle of their feelings to the authorities terrorizes the “majority” while encouraging in the “victims” a level of righteous indignation that would be inappropriate even in concentration camp inmates. The greatest evil of the victimary is not the impassioned insults by which the White Guilty attack their fellows who fail sufficiently to share their guilt, but the free pass given to members of victimary groups to use their resentment as a weapon without being taxed with the least sinfulness.
The ritual-based society of the Old Regime, as I was saying a few Chronicles ago, treated resentment as a sin in defending the firstness inherent in social norms. Revolutionary thought validated the resentment of those kept in inferior status by these norms, but at least nominally sought to abolish itself along with the privilege it attacked. But because the postmodern victimary thinker knows that privilege of some kind will not disappear, his valorization of “subaltern” resentment is permanent, releasing “victims” in perpetuity from all moral responsibility. If, as Ta-Nehisi Coates insists in “Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind” (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/black-pathology-and-the-closing-of-the-progressive-mind/284523/), white supremacy is still “one of the central organizing forces in American life” and “there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself,” what “pathology” is not thereby excused? In contrast, members of victimary groups who affirm the norms of the broader society are vilified, as were recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleeza Rice, among the this year’s contingent unchosen by “activists” as commencement speakers.
An optimistic coda: Learning from history
Is there no possible endpoint for the victimary other than the dystopia of full-fledged victimocracy, where the victims, taking the bit between their teeth, are alone empowered, and the White Guilty are forced to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, as is already happening to many less privileged members of the “majority”? Is the use of the generic “she” in the place of “he” a harbinger of a future where the naïve discriminations of the past will be redoubled knowingly and vengefully in inverse form? Or will “affirmative action” with all its flaws end by fulfilling its promise to truly create a more “diverse” demography in which members of victimary minorities will be seen simply as colleagues and not as “representatives of their race”?
The market system, in whatever version, requires a certain quota of “injustice,” in the sense of more firstness than can be justified a priori by whatever rules have been put in place. As opposed to ritual-based systems that sacralize in advance the existence of castes, the “free” market allows everyone his or her shot at “the pursuit of happiness” but cannot guarantee either an equal distribution of abilities or of the opportunity to exploit these abilities in the marketplace. This is not a justification for complacency, but for clear judgment.
We all know that in “learning from history,” we never learn what we expected to learn, and yet we do learn something. It took the first half of the past century to exhaust the large-scale political resentments generated by the early stages of the “capitalist” system, and when we complain about postwar victimary thinking—remembering that the war in question ended nearly 70 years ago—we should thank our lucky stars that the murderous totalitarian solutions to the “contradictions of capitalism” that appealed to the mobs of the past century have largely gone out of business. No one, aside from a few ironic Euro-Marxists who will do anything to keep their revolutionary buzz, can claim that we have not learned that open hostility to the “free market” has produced nothing but horrible failures. And it is a blessing for the West that the final demonstration of this lesson, learned elsewhere at the cost of immense suffering to billions, could be delivered painlessly under the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan.
If we would take a long-term optimistic perspective on the politics of our era, we have to see history’s pendulum swings as ways of exhausting the viability of such solutions to the extent necessary to dissuade potential disturbers of the equilibrium. The ultimate basis for this optimism, as I have tried to bring out in the preceding Chronicle, is the greater anthropological veracity of GA’s egalitarian paradigm of the human, in comparison with the victimary paradigm, which sees the human and its culture as originarily marked by hierarchy.
Victimocracy is the natural outcome of the victimary. The White Guilt of the majority inevitably leads to the empowerment of its victimary minorities. This begins in “symbolic” domains such as advertising and appointments to “token” offices, but has no natural stopping point, even independently of the unequal distribution of aptitudes among the various ethnic/gender groups. That women now make up around 60% of college students and do better financially than men in many subcategories does nothing to prevent politicians’ ginning up feminine resentment via such slogans as the Republican “war on women.”
The nastiness that is the inevitable result of making victimary resentment the touchstone of all moral conflicts is damaging to white males on a material level, but the pain suffered by the “majority” has a certain lucid nobility in contrast with the plight of the “victims,” unable ever to learn whether the honor received or the promotion granted is truly the result of the “content of their character” rather than the “color of their skin,” constantly encouraged to resentfully attribute their failures to racism, sexism, etc., and treated as “traitors to their race/gender” for expressing solidarity with the “majority.”
Electing an African-American president in the most literal sense and the concomitant “unleashing” of the radical Left mentioned in a recent WSJ column might be seen as premonitory signs of a definitive triumph of victimocracy. But we should reflect that, however unsavory the satisfaction of some that the “majority” is “finally being given a taste of its own medicine,” this is no doubt the only way of running the course of the historical experiment that can lead to the eventual waning of “affirmative action” and the achievement of something like a relatively color- and gender-blind society. In this regard, the Michigan decision railed against by Ms. Sotomayor is, if not prophetic, at least hopeful.
Let me suggest, in my septuagenarian wisdom, a rule of thumb for learning from history: controversial policies tend to work out if their implementation removes or diminishes previous reasons for opposition, and conversely. Let us take the example of “gay marriage,” which had never been heard of before about 10-15 years ago and has by now become “common sense” for the majority of the population. I was unhappy with this transformation of the traditional idea of marriage when it began to be proposed, and objected to it in a couple of Chronicles. And in an abstract sense, the traditional idea still strikes me as best. But a few weeks ago, when an old friend and her partner took advantage of the opportunity to marry, it was impossible for me to view this opportunity as a sign of moral breakdown. The consecration of the warmth of this long-term partnership could not possibly be understood as anything but a reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage, an encouragement rather than a discouragement to young heterosexual couples to follow their example—and move some of today’s 40% out-of-wedlock births into the “legitimate” column.
The victimocratic trend is different, not merely because Mr. Obama has chosen naked partisanship over his original promise of political healing, but simply because phenomena like racial preferences, in contrast to the extension of marriage to same-sex couples, are zero-sum and necessarily produce victims of their own rather than slightly diluting the pool of “traditional” couples. Most real problems can’t be resolved simply by extending some widely-distributed benefit to a small new group of formerly excluded parties, and I did not choose these examples to make that particular contrast.
The experiment of communism (and the preceding one of fascism) produced millions of deaths because these formulas, however many eggs they broke, did appear for a while to promise a future of omelets in an era of war and depression. And victimocracy, breaking far fewer eggs, has produced some real omelets, not just in jobs and recognition for minority members, but in the not altogether unjustified moral satisfaction procured for the members of the White Guilty. But victimocracy is bound to face the law of diminishing returns. However much its partisans abuse the term “progressive,” we need not fear its unlimited progression, and should work rather to create occasions for dialogue in which the victimary is no longer the only “correct” attitude.
I will not see the day, but perhaps in a generation or two, MLK Jr’s line about the “content of their character” will become as close to reality in the political and institutional domain as I believe it already is in the personal. For as I wrote when Barack Obama was first elected (in the over-optimistic pre-inauguration December 2008 Chronicle 365)—and I have never varied from this sentiment—whatever institutional messes the victimary gets us into, I have no doubt that a white person and a black person—and in the US the black-white difference is still emblematic of all the others—converse today more as equals and less as members of “hegemonic” and “subaltern” groups than ever in the past. It is no doubt this progress that is most important in the long run, and that excuses in the large, even if it does not justify in the small, the glorification of resentment and the moral preening of the victimary era. History is a messy affair, and we should be above all thankful when facing the horrors of the victimocracy that they are not those of Auschwitz and the Gulag.